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The Hidden Cost of Neil Olshey for the Trail Blazers

Portland has lost more than playoffs opportunities and cap space under their current GM.

Festus Ezeli Press Conference and Photo Shoot Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

For the last twenty days, Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has been under investigation, allegedly employing bullying tactics and creating a toxic, hostile workplace at Blazers headquarters. The investigative process is presumably coming to a close this week. Very soon, Trail Blazers owner Jody Allen will decide whether to retain Olshey or dismiss him.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve heard varying stories regarding the issue. Former employees have spoken out openly against Olshey. Some media members have given us a glimpse into complaints against him via anonymous sources. Others have jumped to defend Portland’s lead executive. A few have tried to walk both sides of the street.

My personal stance has been that we need to hear from the people most directly involved first, before registering our voices. We’ve had some of that. It’s unlikely that full details of the investigation will be revealed either way. Whether or not the Blazers choose to dismiss Olshey, they’ll want this to go away as quickly as possible, so they can get on with their real business.

But what is that real business, exactly? We’re about to find out.

This will be a pivotal decision, reflecting the Blazers brand and the priorities of Jody Allen and Vulcan, Inc. This is not just about leadership style or office decorum, a boss who swears too much in the rough-and-tumble world of professional sports. This is about control: power enforced by a man with a direct line to ownership, who has wielded relatively unfettered authority and an open microphone for a decade, exercising power on behalf of himself over and against the people around him.

Allen’s choice about what to do with Olshey will tell you everything you need to know about how the Blazers see their relationship with the world and their continued engagement with the broader community. Is this the Franchise of Neil? Do the Blazers have any voice besides his? Does anyone else even matter anymore?

You don’t need me to tell you about Olshey’s methodology, Blazers fans. You’ve seen it already. The question isn’t why Neil Olshey is being investigated, but how did it take so long?

Olshey fired Coach Kim Hughes in 2015 when Hughes accidentally let slip that the Blazers knew star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was leaving long before he actually did. When Hughes’ revelation came out, Olshey was still dissembling in public. Instead of recanting or explaining, he canned the coach who inadvertently revealed the actual outcome.

Olshey repeatedly oversells his relationship with players and coaches when they are on their way into the organization, then buries them mercilessly after they leave. He even threw Paul Allen under the bus after Mr. Allen died of cancer, blaming the former owner for Portland’s questionable decisions.

Olshey routinely offers implausible explanations of his franchise’s moves, descriptions connected to a logic out of line with common sense. He lambasts anyone who dares to counter his assertions, denigrating them publicly and privately, attempting to disempower his critics in any way possible.

This process has become so predictable that we can guarantee a free, 5000-word post after every Olshey press conference: pointing out what he says, how far it departs from reality, and how much time he invests aggrandizing himself and slighting those “beneath” him. We don’t even have to counter his assertions. Bringing them to light is self-explanatory condemnation.

We finally stopped because highlighting the phenomenon became too routine. Arguing against Olshey is ridiculously redundant.

For years you’ve known what’s going on. So did everybody who bothered to look.

Finally, there came the saddest blow: Olshey’s complete refusal to acknowledge—let alone address—any issues surrounding the hiring of Head Coach Chauncey Billups this summer. He casually cut off questions that would have provided some relief to those concerned with the issue, showing a blind, if not callous, willingness to re-offend against victims of sexual violence in order to make sure his voice and viewpoint were the only ones heard.

Most of those concerned weren’t even asking for the decision to be reversed. They knew that was futile. People just wanted to know that they had been heard, that somebody cared that they existed. They couldn’t get a half of a scrap of acknowledgement. Instead they got Olshey giving clumsy cues with a water bottle, signaling his PR official to cut off any further questions on the matter. He had an opinion. He had power. Nothing else mattered.

Following that presser, someone DM’ed me on Twitter with the following message:

You know, he’s gaslighting everyone. I wasn’t able to put it together before, why he made me feel so uncomfortable, but I see it now. He habitually gaslights us all.

She wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard criticisms of executives, coaches, and players before. I have never heard so many people express that a figure reminded them of their former oppressors in word, action, and the processes used to explain or justify both.

We all operate on a spectrum of control and power. The mechanisms remain fairly constant no matter what kind of control we try to exert and where we exert it. So do the red flags and, presumably, the boundaries. Or at least they should. That doesn’t always happen, which is why we need to watch carefully whenever power is exercised.

If you want to know if someone is toxic or abusive, don’t just look at how they treat you or the people in power. Watch how they treat the vulnerable.

Watch how a person treats a vulnerable assistant coach who accidentally exposed their lie. Watch how a person treats vulnerable media members who are dependent on quotes and access for their livelihoods. Watch how a person treats vulnerable departed players or coaches who no longer have access to a microphone in that community, against whom the public is more than ready to turn. Watch how a person treats the vulnerable like victims of assault and abuse who never did have that access.

If you see someone treating the vulnerable with contempt in one venue, you should suspect that it could also happen in others. Their approach to life and relationships isn’t likely to change; only your ability to perceive it does.

If a lead executive is willing to sacrifice people publicly on the altar of his own power, it would not be not surprising if it would also happen in the cloistered halls of an organization in which he holds largely-unchecked power.

I have no problem believing the allegations against Olshey. We’ve seen shady, inwardly-curved exercises of power and vengeance for most of his tenure with the Blazers, played out on a public stage, with cameras and transcripts bearing witness.

“In Olshey we trust,” was a popular mantra among fans not that long ago. Trust is an ironic word in these circumstances. My God, you shouldn’t have, even in a basketball sense, but certainly not in any broader way.

But then again, that was the requirement, right? Olshey’s moves and explanations couldn’t be framed logically without over-stretching threads of credibility to the point they’d snap. So we had to move to “trust”. You’re either with him or against him. You’re a true believer in the franchise or you’re a heretic. You have inside access or you’re fired.

Nobody wants to live in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, centralized under one figure of power who won’t be thwarted. But most everybody did. Most people—media, fans, and inside the organization—spent far more time explaining why we should go along with it than dissecting what was wrong with the scenario.

Except now, we don’t have that luxury in the same way. Neither does Jody Allen.

I have no doubt that Neil Olshey was kind when ingratiating himself to Jody and Paul. He probably never berated them with profanity-laced tirades courtside as he reportedly did with former Head Coach Terry Stotts. That’s not how toxic control gets maintained. You look good to the people with power, exercising your own after they’ve been placated.

Who will Jody Allen choose to see, the Neil Olshey she’s experienced or the one who operates among the rest of us? Who will she make her franchise-guiding determination for, her own convenience, her pocketbook, or the people who are speaking out about their pain over the way this franchise has been conducted?

The franchise that grew out of grassroots support among common, everyday people now routinely marginalizes, manipulates, or acts out against same...not because it intends to, but because it has taken the shape of the person who has led it and crafted it in his own image.

It’s really difficult now to separate that out from community projects or the shiny brands of players. “We all really care about people...but not you employees, or victims of sexual violence, or any people who disagree with the lead executive. But the rest of you, we do care about! Honest!”

If you’re not good to the most vulnerable people in a community, you’re not really good for that community.

I’ve known many employees with the Blazers over the years. Almost to a person, they’ve been amazing. They didn’t deserve this. Neither did the vulnerable fans, or even just hopeful ones, who watched this situation devolve with hardly anybody saying a word about it.

The Blazers, their fans, and everyone in their orbit need to do some soul-searching to reflect on the people we’ve let down in this process. We also need to get better at recognizing it so it doesn’t happen again.

“Where were we?” is only part of the question. “Where do we go from here?” also matters. Jody Allen will take the initial step, one way or another. But stopping something bad from happening isn’t sufficient. Rebuilding the good is just as important.

Whatever rebuilding happens, it needs to start with an admission: over the last ten years, we’ve lost something that we’re going to spend a long time getting back.

The Blazers have never had the same cachet as the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. They never will. That’s ok, because once upon a time they had something. Part of it stemmed from the 1977 Championship, another part from two decades of playoffs appearances, cutting-edge broadcasting, and connection with the community. Put it all together and it amounted to a commitment to quality, a certain flavor in Portland that, even if it didn’t appeal to everyone, at least distinguished the franchise.

Once upon a time, the Blazers had their own, distinct culture. That’s gone now. We’ve traded it for toxicity leavened with the kind of phony salesmanship that redefines “success” as whatever we happen to be doing at the moment and makes the self seem greater by putting everyone else down.

Neil Olshey didn’t kill Portland’s culture alone. It was devolving before he came. The fact that people were so blindly, perhaps desperately, willing to overlook his methods may be a sign that we knew that. “Give us our long-awaited starting point guard and the illusion of being decent and we’ll follow you anywhere.”

It hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

The Blazers no longer have a culture. They have a blindingly-charismatic superstar in Damian Lillard, a logo on the floor, and that’s about it.

Whatever lies ahead for the franchise, rediscovering a positive identity and building it forward for new generations will be critical.

Wins and losses are a part of it, but those will come and go. The Blazers need reasons to exist beyond ticket sales and PR. They need truth-telling. They need positive, daily connections that increase basketball and NBA fandom...ways that uplift and educate fans instead of creating divisions among them. They need to be able to attract good executives and top players looking for an alternative to Brooklyn and L.A. They need to take advantage of the goodwill and talent that already exists in their franchise, assets they’ve been bleeding out over the past few years, up to and including the last three weeks.

Portland will never be a big-market destination, but if they want to be relevant, they need to re-emerge as one of the best, most recognizable small-market franchises in the league.

Whether the current ownership and upper-echelon management is capable of achieving these things remains to be seen. For starters, things need to change at Blazers HQ.

Either way, we need to acknowledge that the last few years have cost us more than we understood on the surface. The loss didn’t center solely around trades, draft picks, and salary cap dollars...though those things were botched too. This is about integrity, the power to bend truth beyond the breaking point, a community and organization that, until now, have seemed willing to accept same.

This era threatens to cost the Allens their legacy, the franchise its culture, employees their peace of mind (and perhaps some their jobs), and fans their ability to support the team without misgivings. It’s also cost all of us the ability to focus on basketball instead of on all this as well.

At what point have we paid enough? And what, exactly, are we paying for?

We should be thankful for the players and employees of the franchise who put their hearts into making the last decade meaningful. The Blazers have had plenty of good moments over the past ten years. That has not been the whole story, though. Lately, it’s not even the most important part of it.

We need to get back to a place where it can be. Let’s hope that Jody Allen’s leadership includes finding an executive who will support the culture and the fans that carried them through most of their history...or at least finding one who won’t end up subverting them.